So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance: Will 12 Work in Dallas?

Maybe you’re thinking, “12 personnel is great, we get it. There’s a lot of balancing risk and reward involved in implementing it on an NFL team, you went through that in too many words. But–“ Will it work for Dallas? I think so. 12 personnel’s success is dependent on a run-pass balance. The defense has to be kept guessing in order for the offense to win more downs than they lose. Lack of tendencies are also key. You can’t show on film that in a certain formation/down-distance combination you run a backside stretch play 72% of the time. Defenses dissect trends and percentages, and keeping everything as close to 50-50 as possible ensures that Tony Romo will see more balanced and reactive alignments and defenses. A perfect recipe for big offensive numbers. Callahan could help in this area if he brings a true commitment to the run game, and the tangible benefits that come as a result. Although running the ball more often won’t automatically improve your rushing attack, so that offensive line…

Jason Witten is another key reason I think this will be a viable option for Dallas. He’s a beast (technical  term), there’s no getting around it. Is he a better blocker than pass catcher? Watch film instead of looking at numbers, and you’ll have a hard time making your choice. Even though he may not have insane touchdown numbers, or be blocking for multiple 1,000 yard rushers, he is a force to be reckoned with in both situations. Already the Cowboys split him out (aligned away from the offensive line, like a wide receiver) a fair amount of the time. Using him as a stand up receiver isn’t a gimmick, and his ability to be an elite receiver in-line and split out lends instant credibility to the Cowboys making this move.

And this is without even mentioning how utilizing Witten opens up the field for Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and his sensitive hamstring, DeMarco Murray, and the stable of running backs ready to step up when Murray gets hurt. Suffice it to say that Witten is what makes this offensive package go (if it does).

Unfortunately, nothing in the NFL is a guarantee. There are reasons why having 12 personnel as the base offense won’t be the juggernaut we all want it to be. The biggest one? Same reason the team as a whole might not have a good year–the offensive line. It was horrendous last year, and not enough was done to strengthen it for this season. I like Travis Frederick and understand why he was drafted where he was, but none of us heard anyone say that this line was one center away from being sufficient.  Effective pressure and blitzes could force the tight ends to stay as blockers and not receivers if the offensive line can’t handle them, which largely negates the advantages of this personnel package. Not having either of the newly drafted tight ends stepping up to become a balanced threat is a death knell for this strategy. When the defense knows what you use Player X for, they know the most likely play call when he’s in the game. Consistent five and six man protections and at least one of the young tight ends turning a weakness into (at least) an adequacy are the main keys for success for this package.

The Cowboys have made the decision to build their offense around a two tight end personnel package, and it has the potential to push their offense from one that struggled inside the red zone to one that can score from anywhere on the field–and against any defense. They have the talent to make this not only succeed, but put them in the playoffs. Also, their deficiencies make this a perilous move that could have ramifications beyond this season. If this ends up as a failed experiment, it could be seasons until they recover. Until that first kickoff against the Giants in September, we won’t know for sure if this will work. But regardless, I can’t stop thinking (or talking, or writing) about it.


12 Personnel: Why Doesn’t Everyone Use It?

If utilizing 12 personnel can make the defense wrong when they guess a passing play, and wrong when they call a run defense, why doesn’t everyone use it? Why would they try anything else? First, in terms of NFL offenses, it’s a fairly new development. The Patriots were the first team to put such an emphasis on using it as a passing package, and that was only in the last four years or so. NFL coaches and franchises are less apt to make sweeping changes to their offensive style or approach because they are more conservative than colleges. The stakes (read: money) are too great to change it up on a whim at the highest level, but when a college is so outmatched that they struggle with getting a first down, a coach will try anything (even the crazy idea of not blocking a defensive rusher). In addition to the mental reasons against switching, there are practical reasons to stay with the offensive system you know. As with any offensive change, moving to a 12 focused team has to be done wholeheartedly to have a shot at succeeding.

One can’t decide to try it in training camp, and then decide to go away from it in the regular season. Focusing on 12 means making sure that you have very specific tight ends on your roster–a profile that many teams may only have one (or none) of, and you need at least two to meet the scheme requirements. Getting those players usually means drafting them, which means not drafting another player that could be a good fit for your existing scheme–ensuring that there is very little room for retreat if it doesn’t work. Having tight ends that aren’t great blockers or pass catchers hurt you in almost every other offensive approach. In 12, it’s essential to not tip the defense off on what you’re about to do–so both of your players need to be equal threats at both possibilities. This is the crux of the personnel package. So a coach can’t decide to give it a shot on a whim and accurately see what it could do for his team. If you don’t commit to it and draft for it, you don’t receive an accurate picture of how the offense could benefit you. And you’ve wasted valuable practice time on an offense that you don’t end up using. If you draft for it, and build your team around it, and it doesn’t work, you can easily be left with a sub-par running game since your tight end might not be the best blocker. It’s a high-risk, (possibly) high-reward move. But one that I think teams will increasingly realize that they need to make to stay up with other teams. Look at the NFC East: two teams in the division will run read-option plays and pistol formations, which in 2012 the league found almost impossible to stop. If Dallas doesn’t answer those warning shots with an arms race of its own, .500 seasons could end up being successful seasons.

Tight ends that fit this mold are hard to find, probably only Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, and Antonio Gates fit that mold. And not all of them perfectly. That’s five for the entire league. Two teams can run the offense based on these existing players. Fortunately there’s the draft, where Dallas has been looking for the player to compliment Jason Witten. Last year they drafted James Hanna, and think he has a shot at fitting that description although he needs to work on his pass catching. Creating competition at that position the Cowboys drafted Gavin Escobar, a pass catching tight end that will need to improve his run blocking in order to become a viable dual threat on the field. Neither player is where you would want him to be to step into this offense opposite Witten, but iron should sharpen iron and get the best player in place through the camp battle.

Also, Jason Garrett doesn’t just want this to be a one season change. After getting the offense in place, there is no reason it can’t keep the Tony Romo-led offense relevant for years to come. Garrett’s need to coach for his job next season throws a wrench in this plan, but his only real option is to coach for multiple years and not just this season. If he’s not here next year, everything is probably being changed anyway since his successor isn’t on the current staff. Garrett would like to get the offense running and viable enough to win enough games to return in 2014, and after another draft be able to improve on what they did with 12 in 2013, and become even more dominant.

Although the possible reward for converting to, and focusing on, this package is great, it can’t be done overnight–and there’s not much looking back. Jason Garrett wants to make this change, but that doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing. Here’s hoping that giving Romo an extra Tight End to throw to does the same thing for him as it did for Tom Brady.

“12” Men on the Field

One of the things that I’m excited about seeing develop for the Cowboys is their focus on becoming a “12 personnel” team. Twelve personnel is something that gets me excited, and it’s where I think the league is going in the future. By Dallas going public with their focus on this package, it is a clear barometer to judge if this season is a success–and if they can keep up with the NFL of the future.

12 is the personnel package with one running back and two tight ends. I think it’s a great idea for Dallas to move to this, and most teams in general (but I only want it to succeed for the Cowboys). In years past 12 was used as a run or play-action package, with the two tight ends bookending the offensive line and serving as additional blockers for the single running back lined up behind the quarterback. Like the mindset of the league in general, things have changed. Running the ball is still extremely important, but you can’t win without passing the ball. Teams are beginning to use the package in passing situations, a development that I think could reap benefits for the Cowboys and change the landscape of this game.

The goal of this mindset, and all offenses, is to have the defense at a disadvantage. You want every decision they make to be wrong–zagging when you’re zigging, jumping when you’re ducking. Put them on their heels, and never let them have any semblance of control over the game. 12 is a great way to accomplish this. Its approach is balanced, it is no longer just for running in a singleback set now. All it means is that you have one running back and two tight ends, where they line up is the variable.

You can go old school with a single back formation

"Traditional" 12 personnel formation

“Traditional” 12 personnel formation


The Patriots often use 12 to split out so they have four receivers. In this case, the receivers are stacked in two groups.

The Patriots often use 12 to split out so they have four receivers. In this case, the receivers are stacked in two groups.

Or, line up in in shotgun with four receivers (just not all of them wide receivers).

Teams can even utilize the pistol. But that’s a completely separate post.

At the point when you break the huddle, if you even huddle, the defense doesn’t know what you’re about to do, or how to counter it. Do they need to go nickel or dime to counter the pass? Walk a safety down to cover? Keep linebackers in to handle the run? That’s the decision for them to make–go with their personnel already on the field or put in substitutions (extra defensive back or two). And when the defense is thinking, that’s the first step towards an offensive win. If you don’t huddle, you give them even less time to think. Dallas will need to adjust their offensive system, not just their philosophy, to run a ton of no huddle, but being able to completely dictate to the defense what is going to happen is key. The coaches and Tony Romo can see the personnel the defense is going to use after their offense lines up, and then call a play based off of that. If they keep linebackers on the field and don’t substitute an extra defensive back, Romo can call a pass. Jason Witten running a seam against a linebacker? Yes, please. If the defensive coordinator decides that he is going to not let the big pass beat them, and go into a nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs) package, Callahan and Romo can give the ball to Demarco Murray against a reduced defensive front. The key is that the defense is always guessing, and the offense has the ability to make them always wrong.

Throwing gasoline on the fire burning from the no huddle offense is adding motion to the equation. Romo and the offense lines up in a running formation and as the defensive personnel settle in to deflect it, the offense shifts to a completely different formation (a passing one), and then snaps the ball while the defensive audibles are still being relayed. As any Cowboys fan who watched a game coached by Rob Ryan, you know how easy it is to attack a defense that is not yet lined up properly. And the audible wouldn’t even have to be complicated, since the play would have been called for the second formation anyway. It could be as simple as changing the formation on the first word out of Tony’s mouth.

So much can be done with this offense to mask some offensive deficiencies, while maximizing the weapons at a quarterback’s disposal. Most importantly, this formation will allow for Romo to keep a defense continually on its heels and should lessen the poor decisions that have ruined so many of Cowboys’ fans afternoons.


Personnel Packages

Talking about football can be confusing, especially when referring to who is on the field. Some analysts like to use formation names to quickly paint a picture, but when multiple terms mean the same thing (“Ace”, “Solo”) one can add to confusion instead of eliminating it. It’s not quite as detailed as listing the actual formation, but I prefer to refer to the personnel package on the field and refer to it often.

Using the personnel numbering system allows anyone who knows it to quickly understand what positions were on the field, and how many of them were used. It’s a simple system, but it allows for the flexibility and inventiveness so prevalent in the sport today. It’s a simple number system that tells you how many running backs and tight ends were in the formation, respectively. Knowing that allows you decode how many receivers were used–since the offensive line will be the tackles, guards, and center (in the vast majority of cases).

The most common personnel packages, but by no means the extent of the possibilities, are 10, 11, and 12.

10 personnel is also known as “four wide” or a “four wide receiver set”, with one running back and no tight ends.

10 personnel

11 personnel is what many see as becoming the standard in the league, three wide receivers, a running back, and a tight end.

11 personnel from the shotgun with three WRs

11 personnel from the shotgun with three WRs

12 personnel is one running back and two tight ends on the field.

12 personnel singleback

The possibilities extend beyond these three, but these are the three most commonly used and serve as examples for understanding the system in all its forms. It still requires some description for the actual formation being used, but it’s quicker and easier to describe who is on the field than using arbitrary terms that one may have to google.